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China’s R&D: Don’t Freak

by david_axe on April 4, 2006

Former Army Captain Matthew Tompkins spent four months in Iraq as a platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division, and another six at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Now, he’s a Henry Luce Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Here’s his first post for Defense Tech. I’m looking forward to more.

china_astronaut.jpgChina is about to pass the U.S. in the development of defense and commercial technology. And they’re gonna take our lunch money, too.

Those are the conclusions China hawks
will draw, no doubt, from a new Office of Naval Research (ONR) report on Beijing’s science and technology. Posted by Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, the report notes that:

* China’s moved to the forefront of S&T research in terms of journal articles published,
and

* China has more R&D investment focus on the hard science and engineering fields most relevant to “defense and commercial activities” than the US or any other competitor

These highlights are worrisome if youre already looking over your shoulder at China. But this isnt Chinas Sputnik, and heres why: First, a big quantity of research doesn’t mean a lot of quality research and second, China’s current investment is only establishing the R&D foundation other nations built decades ago.

Research articles in China have an unfortunate and widely acknowledged difficulty with “borrowing” or restating material, and even outright plagiarism. Its a big enough problem that its even been discussed by media on the mainland, and by the government and a problem has to be pretty egregious for that to happen. (Remember SARS? In China you wouldnt)

This has less to do with dishonesty than with the cultural and social realities of China. For academics and established researchers, the “publish or perish” adage common in Western institutions is taken to its logical extreme: quantifiable measures of accomplishment become necessary in a nation of 1.4 billion. For students and aspiring researchers, Chinas cultural heritage is also an important factor: locating (and repeating) someone elses good work and effective analysis can be considered solid academic work particularly when that someone is older and wiser. (Its a common enough practice in China that advisors are encouraged to explain Western thoughts towards plagiarism to Chinese students studying abroad.)

Chinese government and academic officials are currently working to shift towards more western ideas of original work vs. plagiarism, but this problem is almost certainly a factor in the large quantity of articles published. The ONR paper even seems to bear this out: articles where a Chinese author had a non-Chinese co-author (and were thus less likely to rely on “borrowed” work) tended to be cited more frequently than purely Chinese work.

The other alarm bell is about Chinas primary focus of R&D investment in areas applicable to defense and commerce, compared to Americas and other nations. Conclusions here can be misleading: the report remains focused on the number of research articles, and there is plenty of defense-related research that occurs without published articles, particularly in the US where corporate (and governmental) espionage is of greater concern.

Its also important to remember that China is still very much in the early stages of establishing an academic R&D base that other nations have had for decades. Much of what theyre spending now is money on foundations that most western countries laid 50 years ago and neighbors like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea established during in the 70s and 80s.

Theres no doubt that Chinas development is advancing quickly, and research with very real applications is surely being done. Remember, too, that an academic system built on emulating
others exceptional work is what makes many Chinese labs and corporations so effective at reverse engineering. But anyone reading the ONR report as a cause for concern should look to the ultimate conclusion:

“China has expanded its documented research output dramatically in the last decade.

However, its citation performance is competitive with that of other developing nations but
not competitive with that of the developed nations.”

Matthew Tompkins

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